I knew right away that I'd found someplace special. Heaped on the wooden countertop were craggy scones, filled brioches, cookies, quick breads, and quiches. Golden loaves lined the side wall. They had egg sandwiches for breakfast, and killer oatmeal topped with toasted pecans and dried cherries. But what really tipped me off to the greatness of this place was a single word, printed on the menu in line with the heartier breakfast fare: toast. It was no side dish here.
My order came out in a paper-lined basket, one thick slice of yeasted cornbread and another from their Huron loaf, baked with whole wheat flour and sprouted wheat berries. Toasting here wasn't a hasty pass through a heated oven, but a thorough browning of crust and crumb. The surface of the bread had gone crisp, sharp, even, along the edges, with enough moisture left inside to lend some chew. Nestled into one corner of the basket were a triangular wedge of European butter, the kind with the highest fat, and a small cup of the bakery's homemade preserves. This was toast as it was meant to be: its own thing, a main event.
I went back to Hi-Rise as often as I could afford. Lunch there was a cup of soup and a savory raisin pecan roll, its crust so delightfully hard that the only fitting verb to describe the action of eating it is 'gnaw.' Or, if I was feeling big-stomached enough to tackle it, I'd have a grilled sandwich of caramelized onions, sauteed mushrooms, mustard and two kinds of cheese. More often than lunch, though, I stopped by in the late afternoons for a single, perfect almond macaroon.
The Hi-Rise almond macaroon is plump and squat, a round, rosy cookie with a whole almond pressed into its belly and dusted with powdered sugar. Squeeze, and the crisp outer crust sinks into the chewy center. Two days a week I was done with classes by 4:00 p.m. I'd take the roundabout way home, along Brattle, and stop in at Hi-Rise. If they hadn't sold out yet that day, I'd buy my macaroon. The person behind the counter would twist it up in a square of white wax paper. I'd tuck it into my tote, walk home, fix myself a mug of Earl Grey tea with milk, pull the green camping chair over to the empty side of the room near the window, put my feet up on the radiator, and eat.
The power of that almond flavor was as potent a trigger as ever, I felt the tug of homes past, New York, Ohio, cooling almond cakes, red amaretto cookie tins lost and found. All of this in a new place, on the cusp of a new life. This after-school snack was my first real ritual in Cambridge, a way of digging my heels into fresh terrain. Untwisting my macaroon from its paper, my tote bag slumped on the floor beside me, the scene felt new but also not, as though I were claiming something that was already mine. It was the feeling of a home becoming home.
from Stir, by Jessica Fechtor